I wanted to create some portraits of big 5 animals that show the unique characters of the animal in sharp detail. Buffalo are maybe the most difficult of the tbig 5 to make look unique – they have many similarities to cattle. To me it is their massive horns that make them unique and I wanted to make and image that shows off the impressive size of a good rack. I selected the starting image because it shows all the important features of the face: both eyes, ears forward, nose , mouth and both horns.
Crop for drama
At this point the composition is not too exciting; it is centered, colors are muted and boring, shadows are distracting, etc. A crop with add drama by making the horns act as sight lines from one corner of the image to the other. Unnecessary space is eliminated. The perspective even works in my favor here making the right side horn feel closer to the viewer like it is popping out of the picture and saying “this thing is big”. The horns are the star here.
Switch to monochrome
The color does not work toward the goal of making a portrait of big scary horns attached to an exotic animal. They actually make the buffalo look too common and color patches in the ears draw attention away from the horns. I will switch this to a monochrome treatment.
I have a favorite preset in Lightroom “Creamtone” under B&W Toned Presets. This is actually a duo tone treatment whereby highlights are tinted in one color and the shadow in another. A balance control will set the “break point” as to whether the highlight color or the shadow color is used. This preset also applies a high contrast to the image with bright highlights which works here because it simplifies the background detail. I add a darkening vignette to burn the edges. This concentrates the viewer’s attention onto the subject in the center and adds to the high contrast mood.
You can duplicate the effects of the Lightroom preset in Photoshop by using the Mode< Duotone command. First the image must be converted to 8 bit grayscale. Once this is done the command will be available and you will find many preset duo, tritone, and quad tone settings. Go crazy picking from these or select your own color combinations. Use an adjustment layer to increase the contrast. Use a mask or other technique to create the burnt in edges.
At this point in the Lightroom workflow I switch over to Photoshop for fine details and the sharpening step.
I make a copy tweaks to the image such as a touch of brightening just under the chin to bring out some detail there and using dodge and burn techniques on the eyes.
Make the Details Pop
Now the image is ready to add the sharpening that will make details pop right off the page.
If you have made multiple layers in your document, create a flattened version by pressing Shirt-Option-Command – E ( or Shift-Alt-Ctrl) to create a new flat version of the image and leave the layers intact. Now make 2 more copies of the image by pressing Command-J (Ctrl-J). Make a new layer group and place both of these layer copies inside. The blend mode for the group should be set to Overlay.
Step 2: Click on the top layer in the group and press Command-I (Ctrl-I) to run an Invert command. This command basically changes dark shades to light and light to dark. This will be used later to highlight edges of details and thus provide the sharpening. Change the layer Blend Mode to Vivid Light.
Step 3: The inverted layer will be run through a blur filter. Use Filter>Blur>Surface Blur. Converting this layer to a smart object first will allow you to come back and adjust the settings later. In the Surface Blur options, keep the Threshold low: under 25 and a Radius of around 50. Adjust to your taste.
Step 4: Use a mask on the group to limit the sharpening effect to just the face and horns.
This sharpening technique is not appropriate for every image. The high drama works particularly well with dark and monochrome images. Keep this technique in your bag of tricks to create a dramatic look. Also you may want to check out a more subtle but similar sharpening method using the High Pass Filter.